Text: Matthew 2:1-12
This Sunday is rich in theme. On the secular calendar, it is the first Sunday of the New Year. It is your first Sunday on which to make holy and sacred those New Year promises that you have made to yourself. Even if, in these past four days, you have already strayed from your list, in worship this morning you can ask for a do-over and rededicate yourself to all your good intentions. (Go ahead, right now, say yes again to all the good things you want for yourself in 2009.) On the Christian calendar, this Sunday is Epiphany Sunday. It is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the arrival of the magi at the house where Jesus was born and their recognition that the prophecies of the Messiah had become a reality. In keeping with the epiphany theme, we ponder today what gifts we have to offer the new-born babe; and we open our eyes and ears and hearts to any new insights or visions that God might have for us. For our particular congregation, there is yet another theme that comes into play on this Sunday, January 4, 2009. This Sunday, we begin our year-long 125th anniversary celebration. Throughout this year, beginning with today, we celebrate our history and bless our future as a congregation committed to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
With each of these themes, we have much to be grateful for as we worship God in this place: for another new year full of hope and promise and new beginnings; for a faith that is not dead but alive-a faith that continues to offer us new visions and insights into God’s love for us; and for a church that for 125 years has committed itself to “making a difference in the world” by proclaiming a message of justice and inclusion, of love and forgiveness, of hope and peace. Yes, this Sunday is rich in theme because we are a people rich in a faith tradition that offers hope and promise; and because we are a unique congregation rich in a unique history that also offers hope and promise. Whatever burdens we may carry within us, let us remember on this first Sunday of the new year-Epiphany Sunday-that we shoulder them in the light of the promises of our faith and with the support of this community. In affirmation of this truth, we say together, “thanks be to God.” With that said it is the story of the magi that I want to focus on for the next few minutes; for I believe it is their story that offers us something more to contemplate as we move into a new year and as we begin our anniversary celebration.
I begin with the question: “Who are the magi?” Tradition has the magi as three, custom has made them men, and romance has made them kings. The truth about the magi is this: the bible never says how many there were and while English translations do say “wise men,” had women been translating the bible it could as easily have been translated “wise women,” thus making them queens instead of kings. Biblical and historical scholars have pronounced them to be astrologers and magicians who read the heavens and advised rulers. Regardless of what we know or don’t know about who they were, or what they did, or how many of them traveled to Bethlehem, the one thing that is consistent over the centuries in the variety of their depiction, and in every version of their journey, is that they always asked the same question: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Of all that could define them, it is this question and the journey they set out on to find its answer that clearly says something about who they were. From this one question and the journey they were willing to make to answer it, here’s what we can know about them.
First, these wise people had been studying. They knew their history. They hadn’t merely stumbled onto this momentous event. They had searched their own pasts and their sacred texts; and the result of their study was a readiness, or at least a willingness, to recognize the sign when it appeared. Second, these scholarly folk did not keep their noses in the books all the time. They also were keen observers of the world around them. Third, they were willing to seek confirmation of what they had learned and seen. They moved, put their feet in motion to follow the sign. They took a chance on being proven wrong-or right. Fourth, they were willing to ask for directions along the way, even if they were wrong at times in their choices of resources (King Herod). Fifth, having found the confirmation of their convictions (the child with Mary his mother), they responded with all the gratitude they could muster: offering their finest possessions. And sixth, after seeing the child and having all their hopes realized, they still remained vigilant and attentive-open to further visions and insight-which in the end made them responsive to their dream-delivered warning to go home by another road. (Feasting on the Word, Bartlett and Taylor, editors) To me, it is this last act that is the secret of the magi and the secret to our own spiritual well-being-the spiritual practice of staying open and attentive.
Most of the world’s religions have at their center this practice. In Buddhism it is called mindfulness-the practice of knowing what is going on within and all around us. There is a Buddhist story that goes like this. When the Buddha was asked, “Sir, what do you and your monks practice?” he replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.” The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks and eats,” and the Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.” The Buddha concludes, “When we are mindful [and attentive], touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the results are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.”
In Celtic spirituality the practice of staying open and attentive is lived out in daily chores and routines. Before placing one’s feet on the floor each morning, a prayer is uttered for the blessings of the day that lies ahead. As water is splashed on one’s face, another prayer is offered for the water that cleanses. Before a meal is eaten, one pays respect and attention to the earth that produced the food. In Celtic spirituality, before each movement or chore or deliberate act is taken, there is recognition and gratitude for its place and importance and the resources being used. It is the Celtics way of staying open and attentive.
In our own tradition, the Christian tradition, it is Jesus who teaches us about openness and attentiveness. His message of love and inclusiveness, of grace and forgiveness, of acceptance and belonging is all about staying open and attentive to God’s spirit in our lives. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” teaches us about openness and attentiveness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” teaches us about openness and attentiveness. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” teaches us about openness and attentiveness. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” teaches us about openness and attentiveness. “Pray without ceasing” teaches us about openness and attentiveness. It may not be explicit, but in everything Jesus teaches there is the implicit message of the importance of staying open and attentive to where and how God’s spirit is moving in our lives and in the world.
For most of us, following the magi’s spiritual secret of staying open and attentive will take practice and a lot of grace. It will take imagination of the spirit. It will require a fair amount of creativeness of the soul. It will mean at times stepping outside our logical minds (the one that says we should not forgive those who cause us harm) and trusting more the spiritual dimension of how to live (forgive seventy times seven). When we are sitting, it will require us to know we are sitting. Or when we are walking, to know we are walking. To follow the magi’s secret, we will need to be mindful of the water that washes us clean each morning and each night; of the land that gives us the food that sits on our table morning, noon, and night. But most of all, and possibly most importantly, the secret of the magi-the art of staying open and attentive-will have the greatest significance to us when asking the question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Like the magi of old, I imagine we will not find that child at the center of power but rather on the margins; not in Jerusalem, paralyzed by fear, but in a small village on the outskirts of town. And like the magi of old, in order to find our answer to the question, we will need to study our sacred texts and know our history; we will need to be keen observers of the world around us; we will need to put our feet in motion and take a chance on being wrong-or right; in gratitude we will need to offer to others our finest gifts; and along the way, we may find at times that need to go home by another road.
In this New Year may you be blessed by the secret of the magi. In this anniversary year may our church be blessed with the secret of the magi as we continue to look for the child who has been born king of the Jews, and as we seek to be faithful in making a difference in our world!